Despair greets deal in the Palestinian refugee camps

To many Arabs, the `peace' just legalises the occupation, Robert Fisk reports

In a world that now usually brands all critics of the Israeli- PLO peace as friends of "terrorism", Arabs had a hard time yesterday winning an audience for their deepest fears about the latest Arafat-Peres agreement. But in Syria and Lebanon - whose million Palestinian refugees are virtually cut out of the entire treaty - there was no shortage of despair. As one old Palestinian from the 1948 exodus put it, "everything the Israelis wanted through conquest they have won from the PLO - the coming days will be very dangerous".

How, Palestinians asked, could Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, attempt to run a state in the West Bank when Jewish settlements remained, when Israelis could cut the roads between the seven "free" towns, when thousands of Palestinian prisoners would remain in captivity, when even now the Israelis are building roads through the occupied territories for Jewish settlers, roads which Palestinians are forbidden to use? How could the West Bank not be called "occupied" when the agreement speaks only of "redeployment" rather than "withdrawal" of Israeli troops?

For these and many other reasons, the latest agreement was greeted in the Arab world with something less than the exuberance displayed by President Bill Clinton, whose description of the 400-page document as a "big step on the road to a just and lasting peace" was treated with contempt by many local journalists. "We have two problems with all this euphoria," a Lebanese leader-writer said."First of all, no one I have met has read all 400 pages. We still don't know all the details. Secondly, the arrangements for the West Bank - for Israeli security, for settlers' roads and settlers' security, for joint patrols and single-nationality patrols and dates of redeployment - make the whole thing too complicated to believe in."

It is true that traditional critics such as Syria and Iran have lost one of their original arguments against the Israeli-PLO accord - that the Gaza-Jericho First agreement would be Gaza and Jericho Last. Mr Arafat will move to the West Bank and the PLO's authority, such as it is, will extend far beyond Gaza and Jericho. But at what price? For, as even friends of the deal acknowledge, the most contentious issues - Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, final security arrangements, borders and "co-operation with neighbouring countries" - have not even been discussed.

And it was President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who can scarcely criticise a "peace" in which he has played so prominent a role, who warned yesterday that the final negotiations could be "very difficult". This is putting it mildly. They will now take place, it appears, with most of the West Bank still in Israeli hands - in other words, under occupation - and with many prisoners still to be freed "according to other principles which will be established separately", as the latest agreement opaquely says.

"This is not land for peace," a Palestinian left-winger said yesterday in Beirut's tiny Mar Elias refugee camp. "The Israelis have given the streets to the PLO to control and kept most of the land, 70 per cent of it. The occupation, which was recognised internationally as an illegal act, has now been legitimised with Arafat agreeing to allow Israeli troops to remain in whatever place they choose to redeploy to. I haven't seen the word `withdrawal' once in any account of this new peace."

Officially, the rhetoric against the agreement has been predictable. Syria's government daily al-Baath said it would enable Israel to "evade the prerequisites of a genuine peace" based on withdrawal. Libya described the accord as "a big lie".

Oddly, few editorials pointed out what the old 1948 Palestinian said the moment he read the first account of the agreement: "There's a simple way to bring a final peace - abide by the original UN Security Council resolutions. That means total withdrawal from all occupied Arab lands in return for security and recognition. But that's not what we're getting. The settlers are not leaving, are they? And nor are the Israelis."

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